Court Orders Feds to End Stonewalling and Immediately Process ACLU Request for Torture Records

August 18, 2004

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NEW YORK -- The American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union today won a significant victory in their 10-month struggle to obtain records on the abuse of prisoners held by the United States at detention facilities overseas. In a stinging rebuke, a federal judge ordered the administration to begin honoring an ACLU request under the Freedom of Information Act, saying that the government had dragged its feet for far too long. 

"We're pleased that the court has ordered the government to produce these critical records that we and others have been demanding for so many months," said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU staff attorney. "If the administration has endorsed policies that violate domestic and international law, as appears to have been the case, the public surely has a right to know more about what those policies were and who was responsible for them."

At issue was a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other public interest organizations to force the Bush administration to begin complying with an almost year-old FOIA request for records concerning the torture and abuse of prisoners held by the United States at detention facilities including Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and Guantánamo Bay. Today, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ordered the relevant federal agencies to begin processing the FOIA request immediately. 

The ACLU has already provided the government with a list of specific records that it knows are in the government's possession. The court today ordered the government to turn over records requested in that list or else provide specific reasons for withholding those records by August 23 - next Monday - and then process the remainder of the request on a rolling basis. The court will hold another hearing on September 9 to finalize the entire processing schedule. 

The court's order followed a contentious hearing last week during which the presiding judge sharply criticized the government's continued stonewalling. "We are all functioning in good faith," said Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein. "The information may be unpleasant, the information may be exempt or producible. To allow a process of this nature to go on so long as to be part of a lawsuit doesn't seem to be an exercise in good sense and judgment."

Defendant agencies named in the lawsuit are: the CIA, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Justice and its component, the FBI. The records sought involve both the abuse of prisoners by American forces and the policy of "rendition," under which United States officials hand over detainees to the custody of foreign governments or intelligence services known to employ torture.

"In light of the serious abuses that have occurred and the possible involvement of high-ranking officials in condoning or authorizing those abuses, it is critical that these records be released immediately," said Amrit Singh, a staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "We want to know who knew what, when they knew it, and what, if anything, they did about it." 

Other plaintiffs in the case include the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace. 

The lawsuit is being handled by Lawrence Lustberg and Jennifer Ching of the New Jersey-based law firm Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, P.C. Other attorneys in the case are Jaffer, Singh and Judy Rabinovitz of the ACLU; Art Eisenberg and Beth Haroules of the NYCLU; and Steven Watt, Barbara Olshansky and Jeff Fogel of CCR.

The transcript of the hearing, today's court order and the ACLU list of documents requested as well as other relevant documents can be found at www.aclu.org/torturefoia

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